Peter Geoghegan: From family Robinson woes to affairs of state

A LEADING unionist politician in Northern Ireland laid low by a lurid sex scandal splashed across the red tops.

Accusations of backhanders from property developers. Political unrest in Ulster's Bible-belt. The plot of The Bad Book Affair, a new novel by Belfast-based writer Ian Sansom published next week, must have sounded pretty far-fetched when it arrived on his editor's desk – but in the parallel universe that is Northern Irish politics, truth really is stranger than fiction.

The scandal that has engulfed Peter Robinson threatens not only to cut short the political career of the Democratic Unionist party leader but could yet bring down the entire Stormont administration.

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Unlike so many Northern Irish crises, this one began calmly when, just over a week ago, a select band of journalists were invited to Mr Robinson's east Belfast home. Briefings are part and parcel of political life but this was no normal "meet the press" evening: instead, holding back tears in his front room, the First Minister explained that his wife of over 30 years, and fellow parliamentarian, Iris, had attempted suicide following an affair.

Initially, revelations of Iris Robinson's infidelity were received with a mixture of incredulity and black humour on the streets of Belfast, but politicians from both sides of the tribal divide maintained a respectful silence. It was only with the accusation, made on a BBC current affairs television programme, that Iris had borrowed two sums of 25,000 each from property developers to set her 19-year-old lover up in business that what began as a straightforward sex scandal – albeit with Mrs Robinson's odious statements on homosexuality and hard-line Christian views adding extra spice – morphed into a full-blown constitutional crisis.

That the personal problems of a politician – even the devolved assembly's most senior – should imperil devolution itself reflects the wider impasse on the issue of policing and justice powers that has paralysed Stormont in recent months. Sinn Fein wants control of policing and justice to be transferred from Westminster to Belfast now, if not sooner; the DUP (its erstwhile coalition partner) has thus far resisted such moves, despite Gordon Brown pledging 900 million to smooth the transition.

Amid much publicity on Monday, the DUP's deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, announced that Peter Robinson had resigned "temporarily" as First Minister, designating Arlene Foster to take over his duties for the next six weeks. By invoking the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in this way, Mr Robinson has repeated a familiar tactic of his predecessor-but-one, David Trimble. But while the media admired Mr Robinson's political nous and speculated on whether or not he had saved his head, two crucial points were widely missed: first, Sinn Fein has given the DUP three weeks to resurrect a deal on the devolution of policing and justice, and, second, Mr Robinson has nominated himself to head the negotiating team to meet its republican counterparts.

Reaching a deal with Sinn Fein is crucial to the short-term future of both the DUP and the current incarnation of Stormont. If no agreement on the transfer of policing is forthcoming then there is every possibility that Sinn Fein will collapse the assembly when Mr Robinson returns from his six-week sabbatical by simply refusing to renominate Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister. Under the rules of the Good Friday Agreement, power-sharing only works if both nationalists and unionists can agree to it. In the absence of the majority player in the nationalist bloc, the assembly would automatically dissolve and fresh elections be held.

Before events of the last week, the DUP could have faced such elections in reasonably buoyant mood. Despite growing internal dissent from the right of the party and the prospect of losing votes to former Democratic Unionist MEP Jim Allister's anti-agreement Traditional Unionist Voice, Mr Robinson's colleagues would have expected to profit by positioning themselves as the party that refused to hand control of policing to former terrorists – a rather spurious claim, incidentally, given that Sinn Fein members already sit on the policing board and numerous district policing partnerships.

Now the situation facing the North's largest party is very different. Grassroots DUP supporters include many evangelical Christians who, shocked by the salacious tales emanating from the Robinsons' door, are likely to abandon the party in droves for Mr Allister's TUV, while more mainstream voters could return once again to the Ulster Unionist Party. Such a split in the unionist vote could quite conceivably see Sinn Fein emerge as the largest party in Northern Ireland, an honour that brings with it the right to nominate its choice for First Minister, almost certainly Mr McGuinness. An administration with the former IRA man from Derry at its head would be anathema to any unionist – triggering another, this time potentially fatal, crisis in Northern Ireland's fledgling experiment in devolved government.

So what are the prospects of avoiding this doomsday scenario? Relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein, rarely anything more than icy, have plumbed new depths in recent months.

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Nevertheless, an agreement on policing is increasingly in everyone's best interests. And not just to save Peter Robinson or the assembly. In the early hours of last Friday, before the radio phone-ins had started to hum with chatter about Mrs Robinson's dalliances, a car bomb seriously injured an off-duty policeman in Randallstown, outside Belfast. The victim, who was lucky to escape with his life, was a Catholic policeman, the perpetrators dissident republicans hell-bent on catapulting the North back to the dark ages.

Regardless of its eventual fall-out, the Robinson affair will not spell a large-scale return to violence – indeed on the very day the First Minister was briefing reporters on his wife's indiscretion the loyalist Ulster Defence Association finally announced that it had decommissioned. However, the next few weeks are certainly crucial for the stability of Northern Ireland. Peter Robinson has bought just enough time to make a deal to save its current political process, though whether he can save it or himself remains to be seen.

• Peter Geoghegan is the editor of Political Insight. His book, A Difficult Difference: Race, Religion and the new Northern Ireland, is out in May.